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Ecochange Newsletter N. 5

Jan 24, 2012

Fifth newsletter of the EcoChange project, which assesses the capacity of ecosystems to supply humans with required goods and services and to buffer against climate and land use change.

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This newsletter informs about the FINAL CONFERENCE of ECOCHANGE “A European perspective on the future of biodiversity and ecosystems” which will take place on March 21st and 22nd in Zürich. It will be a public conference addressing researchers as well as stakeholders in order to allow for a discussion of implications that can be drawn from the EcoChange results.

Moreover, you can find an interview with EcoChange researcher Stefan Dullinger in this newsletter: He talks about the impact of climate change on alpine plant species and gives insights in how successful conservation strategies work.

In the hot topic, Marie Dury and Corentin M. Fontaine report on their modelling results and their main findings concerning the impacts of climate change on water resources, timber production and fire intensity. Using Dynamic Vegetation models (DVMs), they investigated the possible responses of various species in order to draw conclusions for biodiversity and human well-being under climatic pressures.

Enjoy reading!


1) Ecochange Final Conference - A European perspective on the future of biodiversity and ecosystems

2) Modelling climate change impacts on alpine species - Interview with S. Dullinger

3) Less water, more fires and increased human impacts - Hot topic on EcoChange's contributions to modelling changes in vegetation 


1)The EcoChange Final Conference

 "A European perspective on the future of biodiversity and ecosystems"

21–22 March 2012, Zürich

The conference aims at disseminating key results of the EcoChange project and invites participants from the scientific community, stakeholders, policy makers, and the interested public.
Conference sessions will cover different aspects of biodiversity research. In each session, EcoChange researchers will present their key findings, which will be further elaborated by experts and stakeholders from various disciplinary backgrounds. Discussions at the end of each session allow for interaction between participants and speakers. We thus aim at a vivid discussion between scientists, stakeholders and policy makers.

Good reasons for you to engage in this conference:

  • You will have the chance to discuss EcoChange results and their implications for biodiversity research and conservation with leading experts from all over Europe.
  • You will receive cutting-edge results of biodiversity research, covering the relation of biodiversity to conservation strategies, climate change, DNA datasets, and ecosystem services.

Session topics:

  • Plant Migration under Global Change (S Dullinger & A Guisan)
  • Community Assembly and Functional Ecology (M Zobel & A Guisan)
  • Global Change, Biomes and Ecosystems (M Sykes & L Francois)
  • DNA metabarcoding & reconstruction of plant communities (P Taberlet & ME Edwards)
  • Reducing uncertainty in biodiversity model projections (NG Yoccoz & NE Zimmermann)
  • Biodiversity conservation in a changing Europe (W Thuiller & M Araujo)
  • Ecosystem services in a changing world (M Rounsevell & I Omann)


Each session will cover EcoChange results and give an input by an external (policy) expert in order to put the results in a policy context. Moreover, a Science-Policy Dialogue on "Socio-economic Aspects of Land-Use Modelling" will take place on the first day of the conference to allow for a deeper discussion between researchers and stakeholders.

Please refer to for further information and registration!


2) Modelling climate change impacts on alpine species

Interview with Stefan Dullinger, Vinca (Vienna Institue for Nature Conservation and Analyses)

Stefan D.Could you please briefly explain your tasks within EcoChange and their relation to the overall project?

Within EcoChange the main task of our working group in Vienna is to improve available models for predicting climate change effects on the future geographical distribution of plant species. In particular, we try to integrate simulations of local population growth, or decline, and of seed dispersal processes into forecasts of species range shifts. We then apply these models in diverse contexts, for example to make predictions about whether, and how fast Alpine plants might adapt their distributions to regional changes in temperature and precipitation; or to analyse how land-use driven habitat fragmentation affects the velocity by which forest understory species might shift their ranges northward under a changing climate. These tasks are close to the basic goals and questions of the EcoChange project.

How will climate change impact alpine plant species and what might be the consequences for the biodiversity of European mountain regions?

In mountains, climate warming will drive species upwards by making areas suitable to them which were formerly too cold. Simultaneously, the ranges of these species will shrink at the lower margins because they are replaced by competitively superior species coming from below. Consequently, those species with nowhere to go, i.e. those which are already living near the upper margins of mountains, like many alpine plants, might easily become extinct regionally or globally, if the species is not found somewhere else. There is plenty of empirical evidence now that such upward shifts are already ongoing, but species migration often lags behind the changing climate. This is problematic in a conservation context, because people might be tempted to underrate the final consequences of climate warming on alpine plant diversity.

On the other hand, research within EcoChange has also shown that a high topographic variability of mountain terrain drives just small scale variations in climatic conditions. As a result, alpine plants might survive climate warming in small-scale climatic refugia for a long time.

Which issues do conservation strategies have to address in order to tackle this challenge?

It’s difficult to mitigate large-scale pressures on biodiversity like those from climate warming by conservation strategies. In relatively pristine areas like high mountain landscapes the main issue is probably to foster the adaptation of species to the changing conditions, and in particular the migration by which they follow the changing conditions. In European high mountain regions this could, for example, involve subsidizing traditional, low intensive summer farming as this type of land use impedes the development and upward move of closed forest vegetation.

In addition, free ranging cattle, sheep or goats are also effective seed dispersal agents thus facilitating plant migration. In case of regional endemics, monitoring of populations would be desirable and assisted migration, i.e. the purposeful dissemination of seeds at suitable sites outside the current range should at least be considered as a conservation tool.

What fascinates and motivates you about your work?

Science resembles a detective’s work: you have to find good questions and develop strategies for answering them. This is an exciting way to earn one’s living. In addition, working on patterns of biodiversity and causes of biodiversity change might make at least a small contribution to its conservation. 


3) Less water, more fires and increased human impacts: EcoChange contributions to modelling changes in vegetation

Hot-Topic by Marie Dury (Université de Liège) and Corentin M. Fontaine (University of Namur)

Although large-scale climate change has already occurred historically, the IPCC shows that current temperature is increasing at a rate never met over the last millennium. Climate changes have started to have knock-on effects on the worldwide ecosystems. What will be the ecosystem responses? What will be the impacts of change in mean and extreme climate on water resources, on timber production, on fire intensity? Will species migrate towards more suitable areas fast enough to survive? How can we preserve biodiversity and human well-being under combined climate and socio-economic pressures? In this context, Dynamic Vegetation models (DVMs) are tools of choice to provide stakeholders with keys to better understand and apprehend conservation planning questions. DVMs are process-based models which are able to simulate the evolution of terrestrial vegetation in response to climate and environmental changes. They calculate carbon (photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, etc.), water (evapotranspiration, runoff, etc.) and nutrient fluxes between vegetation, soil and the atmosphere, and estimate the evolution of carbon pools (leaves, wood, litter and humus). The description of species establishment, competition and mortality due to stresses and disturbances allows determining their geographic distribution under various climate and spatio-temporal scales. They could be upgraded with additional processes as far as needed (fire, seed dispersal, plant disease, etc.). In the following, we present selected EcoChange innovations within the DVMs CARAIB (Carbon Assimilation in the Biosphere).

Since many biological processes reach non-reversible thresholds (loss of ability to germinate, mortality, etc.) at some temperatures or soil water values, we studied the impacts of changes in mean climate as well as in climate variability over the 21st century. The ecosystem dynamics developed within DVMs allows studying the plant species response to environment change on a yearly basis. The CARAIB model results show more frequent and more severe soil water stress episodes especially in the southern and central parts of the continent. This would result in a decrease of species productivity to values much lower than present-day average productivity.

Climate changes also strongly affect biodiversity on European scale. To better assess the future species distributions and locate the areas of future potential ecosystem disruption, a set of 100 relatively common European species (47 herbs, 12 shrubs and 43 trees) has been selected for future simulations. Model results for the 21st century show that in southern Europe, around the Mediterranean Basin and the Black Sea, future landscapes will be characterized by more open vegetation. The warm temperate open woodland will expand to the detriment of temperate broadleaved deciduous forests. The Mediterranean vegetation will shift northwards, towards Western and Central Europe. Temperate and boreal forests will shift northwards and eastwards as well as upwards in the mountainous regions. Consequently to this tree-line displacement, European tundras might disappear almost completely and might be replaced by boreal forest.

Fires also play an important role in the dynamics of ecosystems by affecting their structure and influencing the species succession. CARAIB has thus incorporated a fire module which simulates only natural fires under the hypothesis of potential natural vegetation reconstructed by the model. Results of the CARAIB fire module show increased fire risk almost everywhere in Europe. On average, the annual area burned by wildfire might increase by a factor of 2 in Southern Europe, by a factor of 5 in Central Europe and by a factor of 3.5 in northern Europe. Most countries might have to deal with likely increasing fire damages. Only Scandinavia and northern Russia might not have to face this increasing fire risk.

Species migration mechanisms as well as fire dynamics also highlight that it is essential to take human land use (cover change, fragmentation, etc.) into account when analysing ecosystem response to climate change. Moreover, ecosystems (natural or human-managed) produce many goods and services (EGS) important for the well-being and livelihood of the living beings and present/future socio-economic practices might strongly modify and/or alter their functioning. In the way to propose relevant projections on the optimal evolution of a forest system under human pressure to preserve EGS, dynamic vegetation models have been associated to Agent Based models (ABMs). ABMs simulate land use and land cover change based on the decision processes of individual land use agents, such as farmers. Several DVM outputs (timber production, crop yield, runoff, etc.) are crucial inputs for this type of ABMs since e.g. farmer management relies on expected crop yields.

Therefore, to widen the analysis to human-managed landscape, modelling of crop species has been introduced into CARAIB. In the framework of the EcoChange project as well as of the VOTES project (Valuation Of Terrestrial Ecosystem Services in a multifunctional peri-urban space, Belgium), CARAIB has been run on a case study where limited land surfaces are subject to intense competition for their uses between farming and residential areas. Whilst CARAIB is responsible for the modelling of crop and natural vegetation growth rates relating to climate change, the ABM is used for modelling farmers’ agricultural strategies evolving with respect to socio-economic changes and in response to crop yield changes. The relation of climate change to socio-economic changes are written in coherent scenarios (storylines) describing how society and farming system may unfold in the future.

As a result of high pressure from urban development in this case study area close to Brussels, the size and the distribution of the agricultural, semi-natural and forest ecosystems are expected to vary dramatically, hence affecting the ecosystem services they provide. Eventually, the analysis of possible changes in land use patterns is to be presented to local stakeholders in order to inform on the potential consequences of specific policy decisions. For example, when local decision makers encourage organic farming in combination with a growing interest of local population for such a type of food production, agriculture will shift to practices more respectful of biodiversity. Notwithstanding, policy makers will also have to better control new building development if they do not want to see this agricultural shift overtaken by the high monetary return expected when selling the land to urbanisation.


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